San Diego State is off to its best start since before Mr. Garrison’s birth.
In 1975, the last time the Aztecs started 7-0, the price of gasoline was $0.57 a gallon, the War in Vietnam came to an end, and “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille was number one on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles. Harkening back to a game that could have been straight out of 1975, SDSU defeated Air Force 20-14 Saturday night.
Special Teams: A+
Not only did Matt Araiza’s two field goals represent the margin of victory in the game, but he single-handedly made one of the Air Force’s central strategies pointless. The Falcons love to control the clock and win the field position battle. Early in the first quarter, down 3-0 at SDSU’s 42, the Falcon’s faced a 4th and 4 and elected to punt and downed the ball at the one. A subsequent three and out by SDSU had Araiza kicking from his own end zone. An 81-yard punt later-that only rolled six extra yards-, and the Falcons got the ball back on their own 12.
There were some missed assignments that Air Force did not take advantage of, but the safeties played well throughout the night. Patrick McMorris was tied for the team lead in tackles with seven. Cedarious Barfield, who did not play his typical number of snaps, chipped in five. Against the triple option, making plays is as much about opportunity as anything. Discipline requires players to stay in their assignment, even if it means not making a play on the ball. The group did just that.
Dallas Branch’s one-handed interception set up the game’s opening score and set the tone for the defense. Tayler Hawkins was fantastic in run support, setting his edge well. Noah Tumblin and Noah Avinger also contributed in the physical affair, with the latter recovering a fumble that rolled near the sideline for what felt like an eternity.
The game was won upfront, and the linebackers were stout all night. The group played with great numbers, and they produced. Michael Shawcroft tied for the team lead with seven tackles, Andrew Aleki added four, and Seyddrick Lakalaka added three. The unit got contributions from Garret Fountain and Vai Kaho as well. SDSU’s defense held Air Force to more than 100 yards rushing below their average, and the linebackers were a big reason why.
Defensive Line: A+
Before the season, the question surrounding this group was if they were the best line in the school’s history. Seven games in, and there does not seem to be much doubt that it is. Cameron Thomas is headed to an All-American season, but the special play on Saturday night did not end with the Carlsbad High alum. Keshawn Banks’ instinctual play to stop the Falcons on fourth down was as big of a play as there was on the night. Jonah Tavai’s made two superb play on Air Force’s last possession, the second of which forced the chop block that essentially killed the Falcons’ final drive.
Offensive Line: B
The offensive line was back to playing the mauling style it has built its reputation on. It is doubtful the defense could have been as dominant as it was through most of the game if not for the offense winning time of possession by 2:30 seconds. That difference was created mostly by the line. There were some false start penalties that the unit will need to clean up. The group was also unable to lead the way once in the red zone, and the Aztecs had to settle for a field goal. Otherwise, it was an excellent night for the line, which opened up enough lanes for SDSU to come out on top.
Tight End: A+
The reason this grade is so high is because former team captain Dominic Gudino saw his first significant action of the season. That he saw it as a blocking tight end was even more poetic. Gudino came back from an injury this season much earlier than the team and their doctors anticipated. His hard work and dedication paid off in such an important game was how life should be, but often is not. Daniel Bellinger turned in another Bellinger-type performance. As a team captain, he set the tone for how the offense played.
Wide Receiver: C+
Elijah Kothe led the team in receptions with three. He had a very nice third-down conversion that kept a drive going. In a game this close, every reception was important. Jeff Hecklinski did not call too many pass plays, but the wide receivers answered the bell when called. There were not any real opportunities for big plays in this one, which had more to do with the game plan than the group.
Running Back: A-
39 carries for 157 yards is not the running back group’s best game, but it was still a terrific outing. Four backs had more than 30 yards led by Chance Bell’s 50. He averaged 6.3 yards on eight carries. Greg Bell did not play until the second half. Jordan Byrd provided a spark, spreading out the Falcons defense. Kaegun Williams sealed the win by picking up a first down late. A week after, depending on the passing game, SDSU leaned on its most talented group and was the better for it.
In his third start of the season and the first on the road, Lucas Johnson had a forgettable performance except in the one place it mattered, on the scoreboard. Johnson completed 11 of 13 passes for only 72 yards, but he converted a key third down that setup SDSU’s first touchdown of the evening. Most importantly, Johnson did not turn the ball over. He moved to 3-0 as a starter on the season. The passing game will likely have to be more dynamic with some high-scoring offenses on the schedule the next few weeks.
The Aztecs were ready to play. Adjustments to the scheme on both sides of the ball led to the perfect plan to topple the Falcons. That Air Force climbed back into the game is a credit to them and not a negative for the staff. SDSU beat Air Force at their own game. Not many teams can come into Colorado Springs and be tougher and more disciplined than the Falcons. The Aztecs did just that.
If ever there was a made-for-tv call, it was the replay booth inexplicably reversing the call of an incomplete pass and awarding Air Force a touchdown. If the call on the field would have stood, the Aztecs would have gotten the ball, and the game would likely not have been as close. A few plays prior, Vai Kaho was called for a late hit out of bounds even though Air Force’s punt returner’s foot had yet to touch the boundary line. It was not a total loss for refs. They had the courage to call a chop block late in the game, which many refs will let go because of the circumstances.